About ten years ago, I took a week off of work with the goal of completing a long overdue repainting of my house. I was excited to get the project underway; my house was being treated to a complete transformation of color and it was going to look sweet. Of course, something completely off my radar changed my plans entirely.
The second day I was off, the phone rang around 9 pm. It was a friend of my wife’s, stating she urgently needed help.
At the time, we were living in St. Joseph, Missouri, about a hour north of Kansas City. My wife’s friend Jennifer, along with her husband Gene and their children, were in the process of moving from Lee’s Summit (a suburb of Kansas City and an important part of this story) to Omaha, Nebraska, a 215 mile distance. Heading south from Omaha, the transmission in their 3.8 liter Taurus wagon had violently died on I-29. They had managed to limp to a gas station at a nearby interchange before calling.
Upon our arrival, we learned my wife’s friend had given birth to their fifth child just four days prior. It took three trips to get all of them and their stuff back to our house.
The next morning, knowing the Taurus was toast, Gene and I went car shopping on our way to his house in Lee’s Summit. Having recently been laid off–his new job necessitating the move to Omaha–finances were awful for Gene and his wife. The agenda was to find a decent van or minivan on the cheap and obtain a rental truck.
At the first dealer, the only thing in Gene’s price range was a short wheelbase Dodge conversion van. Black with a bluish interior, it looked like a bruise powered by a 3.9 liter V6. Driving it on relatively flat ground yielded a symphony of “WUHHHH” followed by “ummmm” punctuated by another “WUHHHHH” from its incessant downshifting. Pass.
The next dealer had a sinus-infection-green Ford Windstar minivan. It looked fine but the tubing for the rear air conditioning had rotted. Again, he passed and we made our way to the truck rental lot.
The rental was a 28′ box truck on an International chassis, the only one left in that size. It needed to be jump started and had it been human, it would have had bags under its watering eyes along with a severe head cold to distract from its terminal emphysema. It looked just that pitiful. After we made a stop at his realtor’s office, he asked if I would drive the truck back to his house, while he led the way in my ’92 Crown Victoria. Gene was nervous as he had never driven anything that large. I hadn’t either, but realized it would be fun to figure it out while in Kansas City traffic. Adventure is always grand and drivers in Kansas City are relatively courteous. What could go wrong?
Opening the door, I knew why Gene didn’t care to spend any time in the thing. The seat was of a hardy looking brown fabric–except where the 37,825 people who had previously driven the truck had sat. In that area, there were two greasy looking half-moons, a composite of all the butt cheeks pressed into it over the years.
Looking closer, the truck was a 1986 model (this was in 2004). It had a five-speed manual transmission behind its diesel engine, and the odometer was hard to read, but it looked like it read 600,000 miles. It always seemed doubtful that this company ever established any life cycle for their equipment, so this was likely accurate.
After an uneventful trip back to their house through the now defunct Grandview Triangle (a nasty, nasty confluence of interchanges that was the freeway equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle), we parked the rental and headed back to my house in St. Joseph. The new plan was to head back in the morning and begin loading the truck.
Upon our arrival in St. Joseph, Gene and Jennifer conferred in the closed guest room. Mrs. Jason later reports to me the closed door did not muffle the conversation–it seemed since no vehicle had been purchased, we had done absolutely nothing that day. In retrospect, this was her way of alerting me of our exposure to a severe case of postpartum aggression.
Let the fun continue!
Bright and early the next morning, Gene, Jennifer, the newborn and I traveled back to Lee’s Summit. En route, Jennifer called her parents to request their help. As they lived in Perryville, Missouri, about a hour south of St. Louis, it would be a good five to six hours before they arrived. Fortunately, Gene and Jennifer assured me there wasn’t much left in the house to load onto the truck. At this point, the rain was the only downside of the day.
Getting to their house, I told Gene that we should move the rental truck from where it was parked to where we could more easily load it. As I start to scope out the place, I quickly calculated there was no way on earth all of the stuff left in the house would fit onto three trucks, let alone one. Just as I came to this conclusion, I began to hear one side of a heated conversation in the living room. It was time for Jason to be scarce.
“What do you mean, the truck won’t start? You drove it here, did you not? Then why won’t it start?”
“What? They had to jump start it? Then why the hell didn’t you refuse it?”
“The only one? Dammit, the baby is coming unlatched…Well, they have another outlet. This is Kansas City for crying out loud, they had no others? Call their hotline! This is crazy! This baby is hungry, I need to feed her.”
After I waltzed around looking at all the stuff there was to load, I heard a brow-beaten Gene on the phone.
“I have a truck that won’t start…..’won’t start’ means just that – it will not start…..Do you speak English when not getting paid to do so?……Can you not spell Lee’s Summit? It is ‘L’ as in Lee’s Summit; ‘E’ as in Lee’s Summit; another ‘E’ as in Lee’s Summit – oh, good, you can see it now. Well you have a piece of junk in my driveway and what are you going to do about it?”
Two hours later, Roy the mechanic made his grand arrival. Lo and behold, there actually was another 28′ box truck in Kansas City. The mechanic was driving it and it was full of miscellaneous parts, something I didn’t take as a good sign. For whatever reason, I got to talk to Roy.
His temperament was much like that of a loyal dog who has been kicked in the ribs a lot; eager to help, but a bit scared to do so. As Roy rapidly sensed the stress in the air (having an angry woman with an infant latched onto her breast yelling from the front door was a good indicator), I told him the engine did not turn over and that the solenoid was not clicking. He and I got along famously.
After a little chit-chat, Roy said, “You up for a little adventure?” We concocted a truly redneck plan, to be performed in a very nice neighborhood. While not as brazen as picking your nose and spitting out a wad of chewing tobacco in the presence of Queen Elizabeth, it was in the same general realm. What could go wrong?
I climbed into the butt-streaked seat of the rental truck. Pressing the clutch, the old girl slowly inched down the very slight incline of Gene’s driveway. As the old International stopped just short of the cul-de-sac, Roy eased his identical International around onto the grass, and inched up to the rear bumper of my truck. We were going to pop the clutch and get this beast started.
After Roy started shoving, I waited for a little momentum and popped the clutch. My sudden drop in speed was followed by a violent “POW!” where Roy tagged my truck again. As we pick up speed, getting close to the street side of the cul-de-sac, I popped the clutch a second time, only to hear a sickening grinding noise in return.
At the stop sign, I hopped out and told Gene to follow us in the car. Roy and I decided to go left, deeper into low-speed residential areas with ever nicer, bigger, and higher dollar houses, as we wanted to avoid traffic. He nudged me and we turned left.
As soon as my truck was straight, Roy poured the coals to his. For six tortuous blocks, our game of bumper tag went unabated.
I didn’t realize how much time had slowed down until I eventually realized I was going to experience whiplash right before an intimate encounter with the steering wheel divorced me from my teeth. At this point, I began to notice people on the sidewalk stopping and pointing, aghast at the spectacle of two box trucks playing such a loud and aggressive game of bumper smooching. I quickly realized this was a wonderful testimony to the quality equipment owned by the company whose name was emblazoned on both trucks. Advertising like this didn’t come cheaply.
The drill seemed to last an eternity. Every POW! was followed by another POW! and that sickening grinding. Roy eventually stopped and I climbed out, thinking how delightful a shot of bourbon would be at this point. Looking around, I saw the front bumper of Roy’s truck was bent so badly it was digging into his left front tire. The rear bumper on mine looked marginally better.
Roy was muttering about junky equipment as I walked back to him. He smiled, shook my hand, and said to not worry about charges on the truck. I got in the Crown Victoria with Gene and we drove off, leaving the poor abused International at the curb, never to see it again. That night, Mrs. Jason and I learned of a free condo in Branson where we spent the rest of the week. Gene and Jennifer ultimately hired a moving company, but there remains a certain rental company that causes me to cringe whenever I hear its name.